Week 2: Baikal’s big, snow’s small. . . ‘S all good

Posted: September 19, 2009 in Иркутск, Out of Town
Tags: , , , , , ,

Admittedly, I felt the down-points of the “culture shock” wave more than I expected–the frustration of little inconveniences, getting on wrong busses, the language barrier, missing home and Middlebury–, but, I’m still reeling on how great of a week this turned out to be.

Baikal adventure no. 1
Last Saturday, the Midd group, along with our coordinator and four of her friends from GBT (more on that below) met at the Irkutsk dock on the Angara river in the strangely suburbia-looking Solnechni district. After an hour-long boat ride along the Angara to Lake Baikal, with a stop in town of Listviyanka (the Baikal destination for the Russian nouveaux riches), we found ourselves in the isolated village of Bolshie Koty, named after the wooden shoes made in the town for miners on Baikal.

We filled the rest of the day with an easy hike to the top of a small mountain on one side of the village, a chilly plunge into Baikal (40 deg. F), cooking and eating a chicken stew for dinner, our first Russian sauna (banya) complete with veniki (dried birch branches soaked in water that you beat on each other), all wrapped up with tea and word games (all the more fun in Russian…) into the night.

koty hiking baikal1

In contrast to city life in Irkutsk, the peacefulness of the lake struck both the first timers and the natives. The first night, Patrick and I took a walk down to the lake, which by that time had become noisy with the waves from far-off winds crashing into the rocky shore. Apart from the few bright, white street lights in Koty, all you could see was the layers of pure black across the lake.

The next morning, we set off on a 20 km hike back to Listviyanka along the shore trail, and then through the mountains. The weekend reflection time was much appreciated, as was the social time with actually Russian (!) friends (Zhanna, Zhenya, Katya, and Ulyana), especially as us three Americans had been practically quarantined in the same classroom all week, leaving little time to venture out socially.

We had lunch on the shore, sipped out of the world’s largest natural drinkable water source and proceeded to walk through a 30-minute, slightly unnerving storm, traipsing along the cliffs above the lake with our packs. Then we got a little bit lost, but then found. Coming down off the mountain, we had an hour to spare in Listviyanka before the last bus to Irkutsk left.

While wandering around the market and getting pushed around by the small and unexpectedly solid, sturdy babushkas (lit. grandma’s, but really, any elderly and, consequently, very respected woman in Russia), the scent of fresh-caught and cooked omul’ (a fish indigenous to Baikal known for its strong fishy smell) lured Romany and I to split one. A well-spent 50 rubles to end a well-spent day.

boots P1013804_2 P1013810_2

Time to play, finally
Now getting into the swing of what is admittedly a comparatively low-stress academic “regime” at the IGU Mezhfak, we’re able to focus more of our efforts on getting to know people. Tuesday night, we three Americans met up with three of the girls from the hike for a walk across the center and a night hanging out in one of Irkutsk’s many pizza cafes (imagine McDonald’s, minus the American food, plus Russian food, plus pizza, but leaving the all-ages clientele and kid’s playset in place).

Wednesday evening, Romany and I met our friend Nelli from Petersburg and her friend Katya in the center to play “Bolshoi (big) tennis” (to distinguish it from table tennis apparently) on Grand Boulevard Karl Marx. The grandiose verbiage slightly misled me too: though I have yet to find too much more empirical evidence, this result seems typical of Russian labels for events and festivals in general. The courts, rackets, and balls were probably as old as Karly Marx himself, but it was still a good time, if not just a nominal workout.

Thursday, Romany and I again met to go to the GBT (Great Baikal Trail, BBT in Russian) meeting at the Natural Museum of Irkutsk. Elizabeth volunteers with the organization and had turned us on to it: the group organizes summer and winter projects to Baikal where international participants build trails that will eventually circumnavigate the lake’s shores. The goal of their efforts is to attract eco-minded tourism to experience the lake for all it’s natural magnificence, thereby increasing social initiative to preserve it.

After being welcomed in at the meeting as soon as I’d stepped foot in the door with a handshake, a seat, and tea and sweets, it was clear the group, consisting of young, energetic, and fun people, would be a great place to find some good volunteer, outdoorsy, and social opportunities, all in one. We’d planned on helping them clean up a trail just outside the city today, but they’d finished by the time we were getting ready to go this morning. Next time.

Last night, Nelli got together a group of the international students at our faculty to go see Final Destination 4 (all the better dubbed in Russian): her, her Russian friend Ira, Romany, me, an Italian named Fritz, and 8 Germans. Thirteen people total. To see one of the Final Destination series movies (the basic premise/plot: the “hero” sees how everyone is going to die, they die without fail, and every one is dead at the very bloody, Hamletesque end). That should have been our first signal.

The second signal should have been the fact that around 4:30, really strong winds (i.e. bus-overturning winds, as per the local news) and rain and then snow started, and continued all night. But, after obliging the (typically blasé) thriller-turned-comedy, the lively company distracted everyone from keeping an eye on the time.

Then we realized the busses were done (11 p.m.). Then the wait for a cab was more than an hour. Then half of the German delegation wanted to go a club. Then Nelli, our fearless (Russian) leader seemed like she was having a break-down. . . .

Eventually, after 15-20 minutes of walking up and down slush-covered, muddy, unlit, 11:30-at-night streets of Irkutsk in the wind and snow of the season’s first storm (with me dressed in my hood-less jacket and Sperry’s loafers), we found 3 cabs to get us home, and by midnight, were home safe and sound, though slightly moist and cold.

Lessons learned: Wear more clothes. Taxis, shared, are cheap. Autumn may in fact be a phenomenon unique to Vermont. This year will be great.


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